NEoma_270116 KS-GRACESTUDEN_2

A teacher finds a lowest common denominator in an algebra class. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

A meme questioning the use of Algebra 2 touched a nerve I didn’t know was so raw.

“It’s 2019 … get rid of Algebra 2 in high school and replace it with financial fundamentals. Teach kids about careers (not just college), salaries, credit, budgeting, taking a loan, investing, college debt, buying a house, filing taxes.”

That was the message. I shared it because the idea of requiring more practical skills, including the introduction of career technology possibilities earlier, appeals to me.

I had no idea algebra’s sequel held such love by so many.

Quickly, my friends responded, some with essay-like posts about the necessity of understanding irrational numbers and logarithms. None of which sounded rational to my right-side dominant brain.

My cousin, Daniel, usually a man of few words and a head for math, chimed in.

“What is the need for poetry? What is the need for Shakespeare? Do you want to know how to set a monthly payment for a loan? Algebra 2.”

The arrow comes close to the heart in a way only family can bring. But I got his point.

Not many people ponder Emily Dickinson or the Bard on a daily basis. But the study of literature gets at a connectivity of emotion to deepen the meaning of life.

No matter the field, communication remains crucial. Scientists, doctors, engineers, accountants and others cannot explain concepts and discoveries without an understanding of human nature.

To be fair, it makes sense for creative types to have a foundation of math and science as well. Algebra is the gateway to financial literacy and making sense of the world’s structure.

But I’m still not convinced the status quo is working.

Setting a monthly loan payment sits on my list of must-know life skills, but that doesn’t have to be taught in the abstract way Algebra 2 is designed.

In high school, I took math courses through trigonometry, yet I could not describe how the stock market worked or fill out my own tax forms.

Mechanics need to know trigonometry for replacing engines and fixing air conditioners but didn’t learn those skills sitting in a classroom doing equations. That’s the case with construction workers, machinists, electricians and other important workforce professions.

Building a budget in a spreadsheet finally helped me understand the point of algebraic formulas. Mastering fractions and chemistry came from cooking and sewing with my grandmothers.

Statistics only made sense in graduate school in a class requiring the collection of original survey data.

These more hands-on approaches to higher mathematical thoughts are worth equal treatment.

That would have been my comeback to my cousin, whom I adore, but I was off my game that night.

“Well, I like poetry and Shakespeare” was my response. My high school didn’t offer debate. He won that round.

A few years ago, the arguments about the value of Algebra 2 ramped up after political scientist Andrew Hacker wrote the book, “The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions.” He calls for replacing Algebra 2 and calculus with practical statistics and math courses.

Hacker argues the cohort including Algebra 2 doesn’t recognize different aptitudes and interests and leads to students dropping out. He also states these abstract concepts are used by only engineers and mathematicians.

It’s a provocative position that has a strong following.

Texas dropped Algebra 2 as a high school graduation requirement in 2014. Last year, a study by the U.S. Education’s Institute of Education Sciences found the same number of students enrolling in the class as before the law change. Completion and failure rates have remained the same.

So, eliminating the class as a requirement didn’t make much change either way.

Oklahoma has a problem with college students needing remedial math courses.

Part of that may be the lack of math taken in the later high school. Many finish the prerequisite courses early to have an easy senior year.

That thinking has backfired. If a person doesn’t use the knowledge, it tends to slip from the brain.

Data indicating a need for more math comes from Oklahoma’s ACT math scores, which are higher among students who take courses beyond Algebra 2.

In 2017, the average ACT math score for students taking courses beyond Algebra 2 was 21, compared to 17 for those who took three or fewer high school math credits.

There is value in higher math, but it’s time to reconsider how courses are taught.

Much emphasis has been placed in identifying slow readers at young ages, with a host of free tutoring services available. Nonprofit volunteer work is often centered on literacy with a host of different instructional interventions.

That isn’t the case for math.

Few affordable resources are available for young students who get behind in basic math, and older students definitely have a lack of such help when slamming into walls of higher concepts.

More work is needed in figuring out why students struggle and how to reach them.

It’s not enough to say some people just don’t get math or simply require more of the same math.

These failures aren’t just reflected in education data. They are seen in the mistakes made by adults accepting bad loans, investing in dubious schemes and while seeking workforce changes.

Algebra 2 isn’t going away, and it shouldn’t.

It just needs a different coursework approach, perhaps a complete systemic reform and perspective, if it’s going to reach all students.

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Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376

ginnie.graham@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @GinnieGraham